When Is It The Thought That Counts in Gift Giving? And When Is It Not?

If you’ve traveled on business, you may be familiar with the research I conducted on international gift customs some years ago.  It became the “seminal work” in this area about which travel expert and publisher Fred Hornbruch wrote other references to gift exchanges emanate.  The Chief of Protocol of the U.S. and heads of protocol in government and business around the world have turned for years to advice derived from the research.

My first Harvard Business Review article, “It’s the Thought That Counts,” comes from that research and is a satirical look at the many mistakes we make when we rely on our own taste and customs in selecting and presenting gifts around the world.  For me it was a natural focus of study as my work has been in persuasion, politics and negotiation — all affected by the perfect or perfectly awful gift.

You may be reading this, however, because gift giving has never ceased to be both a desirable form of expression as well as one of great relational risk.  This is also the season of gift giving.  A look at the types of gifts and a few faux pas from the research might go a long way to help raise awareness of how much thought you should put into a gift and whether you should give one at all.

Here are some excerpts:

Gift giving is part of every culture on earth.  Why is this so?  One reason is that language is often a poor vehicle of expression.  There are thoughts and emotions that defy verbal expression.  When we wish to tell others we love them, words of love can be awkward.  Gifts often say what words cannot, such as “Thank you,” “I’m sorry,” “I’m thinking of you,” and other difficult-to-express thoughts and feelings.

Gifts are often more enduring in impact than words.  Flowers, jewelry, books, rings, and other gifts serve as reminders of a sentiment long after it has been expressed in words.  Gifts are tangible representations of intangible thoughts and emotions.  The recipient of a well-selected, well-presented gift, has received a visible sign of affection or gratitude.

Gifts are also given for a reason that most of us would just as soon ignore — to incur obligation.  Some, like the Japanese, find a social debt a great burden even in today’s modern times.  A person can lose face if it is not repaid.  Gifts can be used both to create and to dismiss obligation.  

There are four types of gift-giving:  expressive, normative, strategic, and ulterior-motivated.  Expressive gifts are of the heart.  They are given to express good feeling toward the recipient.  They are not intended to incur obligation, nor are they given with any expectation of a return gift.  

Normative gifts are given because they’re expected.  In the United States, there are many holidays when gifts are expected:  Christmas, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, birthdays of relatives and close friends, and anniversaries generally fall into this category.  Normative gifts can be expressive.  However, the primary reason for normative gifts is that were they not given, the neglected party might feel hurt, annoyed, or even angered.

Strategic gifts are given to get something in return, or to create a positive impression.  Most business gifts are of this type.  They are given with the hope that something will be received in return, even if that something is only good will.  Strategic gifts, if effective, encourage the recipient to give something in return.  They can courage a secretary to place the gift donor’s request at the top of a work pile.  They can be used in courtship to encourage continuation of a relationship.

Even if the gift donor is not consciously aware of his or her strategic intentions, the motive may still be there….

Ulterior-motivated gifts are given with the sole purpose of obligating the recipient.  They are not given with a vague, subconscious hope that the recipient will respond favorably to the donor, but with the clear intention to get something of value in return.  These “gifts” may actually be bribes.

While these categories divide gifts neatly, the reality of gift giving is that there are always at least two people interpreting the message of a gift — the donor and the recipient.  While a donor may have every good intention, the recipient of his or her gift may interpret the gesture as an attempt to create an obligation.  Similarly, the donor who gives a strategic gift may discover that the recipient interprets it as a loving gesture from which no obligation need be derived.

The opportunities for misinterpretations during gift giving are extensive.  This why it is important to take care when selecting and presenting gifts, especially when the people involved are from different cultures.  The truth is, though, cultural lines don’t have to be crossed for gift giving to be a complex, delicate form of communication.

Here are some general do’s and don’ts of gift giving around the world.  There are many more:

1.  Don’t rely on your own taste.  Rely on research and good listening.

2.  Don’t bring a gift to the wife of an associate if you are a man unless you know that in his culture this is accepted.  Also women must consider the meaning of a gift to a man in cultures where business relationships between men and women are not relaxed.

3.  Don’t outgive the Japanese.  It can cause great embarrassment and obligation.  In fact, this is a delicate matter in many regions of the world and one to consider even within our own cultures.

4.  Don’t insist that your counterpart from another culture open a gift in your presence.  That is not done in many regions of the world.

5.  The element of surprise so valued in the U.S. is often offensive in other parts of the world where being caught without a reciprocal gift is very embarrassing.

6.  Be careful about colors and numbers of items.  They can have negative connotations.

7.  Know the gift-wrapping customs and stick to them rather than your own, especially if you are the visitor.

8.  Knives as a gift can signify the cutting off of a relationship as handkerchiefs can suggest sadness.  A clock is not a good gift in China.  It is a symbol of bad luck associated with death.

There are many more considerations.  In all cultures there are unstated rules for gifts. Within company cultures and families there are expectations as well.  Some gifts are too personal, too impersonal, too expensive, too late, irrelevant to the recipient’s interests and thus reflective of inconsiderateness, or presented with too much or too little fanfare.  It isn’t as if only people from other parts of the world have expectations regarding gifts.  We all do.  It’s unwise to ignore this.

The most appreciated gift anywhere in the world is one that indicates the person giving it has thought about this, done research, has been paying attention to the recipient’s likes, dislikes and desires, and has chosen the right nature, time and manner of presenting a gift.

In my research, one of the most appreciated gifts was not an expensive one.  On the occasion of the marriage of the daughter of a business counterpart, the gift that brought tears to the eyes of the recipient and much gratitude was a beautifully framed photo the person giving the gift had taken when the bride was a little girl and he had met his business friend’s family for the first time.  He presented it, not to the bride and groom, but to his friend.  It was never forgotten and forever appreciated.  Very often, it is indeed the thought that counts.



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